Cora Kellerman was a middle schooler at a swimming party in her hometown of La Conner, Wash., when she first noticed something was wrong. She exited the pool exhausted, her heart racing, and called her mom.
“We saw a doctor in Seattle and he ran a couple of tests, but he said it was more of a nuisance,” Kellerman said. “But then each year it got worse, more frequent. Last year I went in August 5th for an appointment right after I had a really bad episode.”
Spokane doctors instructed Kellerman, entering her junior season as an outside hitter on the Eastern Washington University volleyball team, to wear a heart monitor for a month. After one day, they had all the recordings they needed. They called Kellerman and told her to stop playing volleyball immediately.
She had controlled her accelerated heartbeat by adjusting her breathing and through other means, but nothing was working anymore. One minute she’d be fine, the next minute she was completely sapped of energy.
“It’s like hitting a brick wall,” she said. “Automatic fatigue. I felt like I’d go from normal to 270 (beats per minute) like nothing. If I looked down I could see my shirt shaking and I’d get a really bad headache, start losing feeling in my face, my hands. Lots of pressure in my chest. I’d feel nauseous, black spots in my vision, blurriness.”
The answer wasn’t quitting volleyball, partly because the incidents were unpredictable, hitting her in her sleep or when she stepped awkwardly off a curb.
Tests revealed Kellerman had several heart issues, but pinning down the problems and corresponding treatment proved elusive. It was the beginning of a grueling stretch of three surgeries in five months that would take Kellerman, her family and friends across the country on an emotional odyssey filled with devastating lows and joyous celebrations that continue to this day.
Searching for answers
The last few years Kellerman has learned as much about herself as the inner workings or her heart. Her teammates and coaches marvel at her attitude, determination and toughness. In a 90-minute interview, the outgoing Kellerman never offers a trace of ‘Why me?’
“My family is Christian and that was a big thing for me,” said Kellerman, who redshirted last season. “I wouldn’t have had the capacity to deal with it if it had happened when I was younger. It happened right when it should have, when I could deal with it and I’m OK.”
“She won two awards last year and she didn’t even play,” EWU coach Miles Kydd said. “They’re voted on by the players, most spirit and the Eagle Award. The Eagle Award goes to the person that most represents what we stand for. That says a lot about her as a person, her energy and passion for the game and her love of her teammates.”
Kellerman’s first two surgeries were in Spokane and neither solved her problems. She has atrioventricular nodal reentrant tachycardia (AVNRT), is a type of tachycardia (fast rhythm) of the heart, and, she adds, “a couple other things going on in there.”
“What they thought is she had extra pathways that send electrical signals,” said Cora’s father, Brian. “Ablation (a procedure) is literally burning those areas so they won’t conduct through that scar tissue.”
Cora has become adept at reading the post-op faces of doctors and nurses. She knew right away the first six-hour operation wasn’t successful. She was crushed, but not for long. Within weeks she had a more invasive procedure. Unfortunately, she woke up to see more disappointed faces.
“I was like, ‘All right, there’s a reason for this, maybe I don’t understand it now but some good will come of it,’” Kellerman said.
A helping hand
Kellerman’s doctors steered her and her medical records to the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine and Dr. Francis Marchlinski.
“With some of their specialized equipment and methods and Dr. Marchlinski … the majority of cases he sees are from people who have already had procedures that they weren’t able to resolve,” said Brian Kellerman, who starred on Don Monson’s renowned University of Idaho men’s basketball teams in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “Penn is probably one of the top places in the country for this type of thing.”
Surgery was set for Dec. 28. Kellerman was under conscious sedation for the eight-hour operation.
“I kind of like that I could ask them what was going on. What’s weird is when they’re in there I can feel them in there, moving things around,” she said. “I also like conscious sedation because I could say my prayers and I brought out all of them.”
At one point, Kellerman was told to prepare for 10 seconds of extreme discomfort.
“I felt it going into the IV, go into my other arm, shoot down my legs. It felt like my entire body turned to stone,” she said. “I guess one pathway was really close to some vital things and they inject you so your heart stops beating and they can be very accurate.”
After the surgery, Kellerman took inventory of the medical staff and smiled.
“Dr. Marchlinski came in and gave me a fist bump,” she said. “He told my family that is was the toughest case he’d ever seen. It was a big celebration. It was a big celebration for them, too. A couple other doctors kept coming in the next few days and said, ‘We’ve never seen him so stumped.’”
More ups and downs
The celebration lasted six months. Doctors had warned Kellerman there was roughly a 20 percent chance of recurrence, but if she made it through six months without any incidents she was probably in the clear.
Follow-up tests were encouraging.
“They put me on a treadmill the next day. My dad went to Kmart and bought me some sneakers and shorts and it was the first time I can remember running and just not being tired,” Kellerman said. “My body was a little worn out (from surgery), but it wasn’t exhausted.”
The ensuing six months were the healthiest she can remember, save six idle weeks with a broken toe joint. She lifted weights, practiced and played some of the best volleyball of her career.
On June 28, exactly six months after her surgery, Team Kellerman gathered for a celebration dinner.
Two weeks later, she experienced a “teensy, five-second incident.” No big deal, she thought. After a few more serious episodes, she knew she couldn’t ignore the warning signs. She told her family and set up a doctor’s appointment.
“You just want everything to be resolved, maybe even more so as a parent,” her father said. “It was a little disheartening.”
Kellerman says it’s not quite the same as before.
“It’s not racing the same way as it was but it’s the same type of side effects: headache, nauseous, fatigue,” she said. “Basically my heart’s efficiency is really low.”
Doctors have cleared her to play volleyball.
“The risk factor that was previously there isn’t there,” Kellerman’s father said, “and that in itself was a big deal.”
Kellerman stresses the importance of the support she’s received from family and friends (“I feel like they went through every surgery with me”) and she praises Spokane’s medical community for being “awesome.”
She may not have a clean bill of health yet, but her perspective is in excellent shape.
“For me, it’s this happened and now a lot of good things can happen from it,” Kellerman said. “I met a lady on the plane (on the flight to Philadelphia). I usually wouldn’t spill the beans to anybody, but I poured my heart out to her and she was just wonderful. That’s another example of when I say my prayers were being answered. It was there in somebody I hadn’t met.”
During the last surgery, she noted that her selection of electrical engineering as a major was affirmed after “watching this guy in the operating room, making sure everything was working sound, the volts, mapping everything.”
What’s next on the court? Kellerman, an All-Big Sky candidate who had 20 kills in a five-set win over Washington State earlier this season, hopes medication will alleviate her health concerns.
“I feel like I’ve only had six months without it so having something going on is almost like second nature,” said Kellerman, a two-time Big Sky All-Academic selection who has a team-high 181 kills for EWU, which is off to a 4-0 conference start. “There have been a couple of games where I haven’t had any problems. When it’s going on, I’m just really fatigued and sometimes I get subbed out.”
What’s next off the court? She recalls a discussion she had with her dad a few years ago, spurred by an EWU team-building exercise, about being known for something other than just playing volleyball.
“This has given me a perspective on how things should line up, a pyramid of life,” Kellerman said. “Before I felt like I was a brat because I had volleyball somewhere on top. That is so obviously backward. Volleyball is still somewhere in the mix, it’s not way down, but I feel like this whole thing has strengthened my faith and not everybody gets a chance to have that moment when something is so personal.”